In the United States, it’s become the norm to eat our meals without ceremony, quickly devouring them at our desks, in the office break area or in front of the living room TV. But if you find yourself in a stateside “formal” dining scenario (like a banquet or a wedding), your meal likely begins with a dressed salad.
American chefs and etiquette experts point to the filling nature of roughage to defend salad’s position as the first course, but in many other cultures, enjoying a salad after the main entree is considered the right move for proper digestion.
So when should we actually eat our salads: before, during or after the main course? We spoke to chefs and etiquette specialists from around the world to learn the salad protocols for 5 different global cuisines, and the reasoning behind each one.
In the United States, diners typically eat their salads before the main course.
Formal meals in America generally start with a salad and/or soup, followed by an appetizer, an entree and then a dessert course. According to etiquette expert Jacquelyn Youst of the Pennsylvania Academy of Protocol, starting off with a salad can prevent overeating later on.
“Americans typically eat their salad before or during a meal. [As some of my] research shows, eating a salad before a meal can reduce your caloric intake.”
NYU gastroenterologist Rabia de Latour agrees with Youst’s findings, telling HuffPost that “the stomach senses satiety after a period of time, so if you are interested in maintaining or losing weight, filling your stomach with low-calorie roughage like lettuce before your meal will help with this.”
French meals include a salad course after the entree and before dessert.
European-trained chef Karl Guggenmos of Healthy Meals Supreme explains that in France, diners believe that a green salad consumed after a main course can assist with digestion. “Since salads are rich in fiber, they will aid in the digestion of the food eaten before. [Also,] salads will cleanse the palate and prepare the digestive system for dessert,” Guggenmos told HuffPost.
According to executive chef Laetitia Rouabah of Benoit in New York City, “in France, salad is traditionally eaten after the main course, served plain with vinaigrette. Some people say it helps with digestion and is a good source of vitamins.”
However, she also notes that this time-honored dining pattern has become less rigid in recent years, stating that “the French [also] eat salads now as a main course with proteins and vegetables. The timing of when you eat [a salad] shouldn’t have a significant impact on your health as long as the ingredients you are using are healthy overall.”
Italians serve their salad course, also known as “insalata,” either alongside their entrees or directly after.
Classic Italian dinners involve numerous small courses served in a very specific order. Meals begin with an “aperitivo” (cocktail snacks like olives or mixed nuts), proceed to “antipasto” (starters like salumi, cheeses or artichokes), then “primo” (a hot course that’s usually pasta or risotto). The entree is known as “secondo” (typically a protein course like meat or fish), then Italians enjoy a “formaggi e frutta” (cheese and fruit) plate before finishing up with “dolce” and after-dinner drinks and coffee.
Chef Tony Gargano of Osteria Bigolaro in Chicago told HuffPost that Italian meals often include warm vegetable dishes (“contorno”) alongside the secondo, and that cold salads (known as “insalata”) are served with the contorno or directly after the entree.
“In Italy, the more formal, traditional Italian meal structure consists of many courses, with salad following after the main course/protein is served. Italian salads are most often topped with olive oil and vinegar. It is believed that serving salad after the main course aids in digestion and prepares the palate for wine. That’s because the olive oil helps to settle and balance the digestion, and the acidity of the vinegar can refresh the taste buds and heighten the taste of dessert and wine,” Gargano explained.
While “salad” isn’t typically a course in Chinese cuisine, raw and cooked veggies frequently serve as a meal starter.
As befits a massive nation like China, the country’s cuisine has diverse permutations based on geography and specific regional practices. Therefore, Chinese dining traditions vary significantly depending on location. However, the practice of serving “cold food” plates of raw or cooked vegetables prior to a meal is a consistent factor throughout the numerous subsets of Chinese meal culture.
“Chinese cold foods are rarely, if ever, dumped into a bowl with a dressing or a sauce poured over them,” food anthropologist Jacqueline M. Newman told Flavor & Fortune. “Chinese cold foods are usually set out beautifully on a platter, served at room temperature, warm, or very cold, and often start a banquet or fancy home meal.”
Head chef Kaiyuan Li of Atlas Kitchen in New York specializes in Hunan cuisine, and he prefers to serve vegetable “salad” courses prior to a main entree. “Eating salad before a meal helps to increase vegetable intake. Since it’s the starter of a meal, salads are less likely to be left on the plate. Salads are usually high in dietary fiber, resulting in a strong sense of fullness. Thus there is less chance of over-eating high-fat and high-calorie food after,” Li advised HuffPost.
The ayurvedic movement in India encourages consuming salads after the entree to improve digestion.
An ancient medicinal and nutritional tradition based in India, ayurveda centers around the connection between the mind and the body and uses those principles to promote wellness and energy generation. One crucial tenet of ayurveda involves the digestive system, which practitioners believe strengthens our physical power.
Ayurvedic nutritionist Anastasia Sharova of Happy Bellyfish points out the link between ayurvedic theories and the choice to eat salad prior to a warm entree, stating that “according to ayurveda, raw foods are not easy to digest and they should never be mixed with cooked foods. Therefore, it is advised that raw salads are eaten at least 20 minutes before the main meal. As an alternative, you can make a delicious salad from slightly sautéed vegetables, with a pinch of spice, and enjoy it as part of the main meal.”
While opinions about digestive health play an important role in the choice to eat salad before, during or after a main course, the timing of the salad course is a cultural design rather than a hard-and-fast nutritional rule. As long as you’re consuming veggies on a regular basis, you’ll receive their benefits, regardless of where you choose to position your salad course during your meal.